This week's readings were focused on oral history. Most historians I know light up with joy and excitement when oral history is discussed, and for good reason. However, as my historical interests range too far in the past for oral history to apply, it isn't very helpful to me academically for studying my topics of choice. However, as a public historian, it is important for me to understand its opportunities and limitations.
In his article, When Community Comes Home to Roost: The Southern Milltown as Lost Cause, Leon Fink showed how sometimes, community-based public history/oral history projects can sometimes go far astray from the historian’s intentions and into territory we wholeheartedly condemn. He focused on a case where a couple and their historical organization (the Rumleys’ Cooleemee Historical Association) took the methods and focus of historians on doing history from the bottom up, and used them for heritage and nostalgia rather than history.
Part of his discussion is on the contrast between history and heritage. While heritage’s enthusiastic celebration of the good and neglect of the bad is extremely problematic, and comes at the cost of real history, sometimes I think maybe we should relax and remember good things did happen alongside the bad. Sometimes, it seems like we are only concerned about the bad and neglect the good, at the cost of real history.
In the first few chapters of A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, Michael Frisch discussed several issues relating to oral history and public history. Though a review of Hard Times (by Studs Terkel), Frisch explored the many dangers and pitfalls of oral history and the way it interacts with public memory. While he admitted Terkel was not trying to write a history, but share memories, he showed how historians could easily fall into traps using oral history if not careful and prepared. He extended a useful warning at the end—when we develop shiny new methods of inquiry and research, it is important to use them critically and carefully. We can embrace them, but with proper analysis first.
In further chapters, Frisch discusses the nature and motivations of public history (and within that, oral history). He is concerned the typical reasons we give for why we do public history are not enough. I agree it is important to consider the why of things, but at the end of the day, most of us got into history in the first place because we are interested in it. I doubt anybody woke up one day and thought, I want to make people explore what it means to remember and how memory and history interact; I’ll go to college and become a historian! And I doubt anyone who isn’t a historian will be persuaded to become one by that line. While I see nothing wrong with deciding to include this as a why of public history work, I think we should still be honest with ourselves and others that we do history in part because it interests us, or at least admit that interest was our initial draw to history.
In the essay, When Subjects Don’t Come Out, Sherrie Tucker discussed her experience conducting oral interviews of band members belonging to all-women jazz ensembles of the big band era. She faced many unique problems trying to get her interviewees to talk about their sexuality, while they cunningly avoided all talk of their sexuality and instead focused on their musicality. She ended up in many ambiguous situations where it was impossible to discern the sexualities of her subjects, as some evidence pointed one way, some the other, and they stick hard and fast to being straight, so much so that it seems excessive. She analyzed the factors which would prompt them to do this in their context (need to appear temperate in order to keep their jobs) and discussed the distress their refusal to admit anything but straightness has caused her in her scholarly research.
While there are plenty of places to go with this reading, I noticed the huge disconnect between what the historian wanted and what her interviewees wanted. Tucker wanted to fit into recent trends in historiography, and presumably has a great interest in studying gender and sexuality. The women wanted to tell the history of their musicality and experiences as swing musicians, just as has been done for their male counterparts. It raises the question: do we owe them that? Should we document that history first, and then the history of their sexuality (given the first has been denied them)? Or can we fairly do both at the same time?
Our final reading was The Oral History Manual by Barbara Sommer and Mary Quinlan. I’ve long since run out of space but, this is similar to some other manual-style readings we’ve done (Serrell) and useful in similar ways.